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Response to some comradely criticisms

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Trigger Warning: Discussion of rape and sexual violence

Note: This writing is a response to criticisms of my earlier essay, "On Believing Women Who Allege Rape."

I have had a number of responses from comrades (and others) regarding my article ‘On Believing Women Who Allege Rape’ (http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/campaigns/135-rosie-warren-on-believing-women-who-allege-rape), and I’d like to take the time to clarify and respond to some of the most thought-provoking. The first is a response from Shanice McBean (http://somcbean.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/you-did-hear-me-miscommunication-and.html?m=1) which focuses on my assertion that rapists can rape without knowing they have done so. 

I’d like to thank Shanice for taking the time to respond to my article, and I’m sure she would agree that this kind of reasoned, sober and respectful conversation is refreshing after the ‘debates’ of the past few months. It is a relief to finally look these issues square in the face, without being forced to take a surreal detour involving positions on 20th century revolutionaries, questions of organisation, and party structures.

Of course I wholly concur with Shanice’s point regarding men who are not sure about consent. As she correctly asserts, “it’s quite telling that they were willing to proceed while not being sure they had consent”. As I stated originally, “It is absolutely and unequivocally the responsibility of a man to make concretely sure that he has a woman’s consent before he has sex with her. If he’s not sure, he should not have sex with her.” To this I would now add, as has been pointed out to me, that he should ensure that he has consent the entire time – it can, of course, be withdrawn at any stage. Consent, and lack thereof, are too serious to be unsure about. If a man is unsure about whether his desired sexual partner’s consent is present, or freely given, then he runs the risk of having sex with someone who has not consented. He runs the risk of raping them. What he does in such a situation, then, surely illuminates how seriously he takes rape. 

I also agree with Shanice’s argument regarding the Kitzinger and Frith study ‘Just Say No?’, which clearly shows that in many cases rapists fully understand refusals but choose to ignore them. It is entirely plausible that the majority of rapists are in fact self-conscious predators who are well aware that they have no consent. Mine is certainly not an argument that many or most rapists don’t understand what they have done. To suggest that most rapists are men who do not understand consent would be completely unwarranted and evidence-free; it would also of course be extremely politically questionable and dangerous. However, what does not follow, and where I disagree with Shanice, is that “the question of miscommunication is not one we should even be acknowledging”. 

If she is gleaning this conclusion from her reading of the study by David Lisak and Paul Miller, I think Shanice is mistaken in some of the conclusions she forms from their work (http://goo.gl/VcKQr). The study is very informative, and shows a lot about both detected and undetected rapists. It does not, however, show much about miscommunication.

The study involved a questionnaire presented to college students about “childhood experiences and adult functioning”. In it, words such as ‘rape’, ‘abuse’ and ‘assault’ were omitted in order to avoid defensive responses. In order for the men completing the questionnaire to be classified as rapists, they had to answer yes to one of the following questions:

1. Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?

2. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g. removing their clothes)? 

Of the men who answered yes, and were therefore classified as rapists, there were a number of findings regarding repeat offending, methodology and so on, as Shanice outlines. This, however, tells us very little about miscommunication. These men, after all, are classic examples of The Rapist with which we are culturally familiar. They have used threats of, or actual, physical force, or had sex with someone too intoxicated to resist despite knowing their sexual partner did not want the encounter. Every rapist in this study is well aware that they did not have consent. The study has nothing to say about – indeed cannot detect – rapists who believe that the women they have raped consented, and who therefore do not recognise what they have done as rape. 

It is entirely possible that such rapists – those who thought they had consent – make up a minority of rapists; indeed, I suspect they do. It is extremely difficult to gauge the proportion of rapists they comprise, since by definition it is nigh-on impossible to study them as they will not identify themselves. But that they might make up only a tiny minority of rapists does not mean that we ought not to acknowledge their existence. Quite the opposite. To deny the existence of such rapists would be to undermine the experiences of those survivors who have been raped by them. Indeed, both to take seriously the experience of their survivors, and to start to understand the psychology of men who rape – surely not an unimportant task in understanding the social and political phenomenon of rape – the possibility that at least some rapists may not have mens rea (the guilty mind) is surely important.

Shanice argues that “perpetuating this notion that there are a chunk of rapists who just didn’t understand actually cuts off the victims of such rapists from having a meaningful position to be able to approach the police about their assault”. However, if even the possibility that such ‘unknowing’ rapists can exist is admitted, Shanice’s point that this complicates the situation for survivors of such rape seems to me not to show that my argument about the existence of those rapists is flawed, but simply reiterates that the law around and cultural approach to rape and consent are woefully inadequate. If we are to work towards laws, and a culture, that help survivors gain convictions, redress and support, the complexities of such situations cannot be denied; they must rather be engaged with. No one denies that this would be complicated and difficult. But to start, as Shanice seems to, from the perspective that we cannot acknowledge the existence of a politically or theoretically troublesome category of rapists because it might make legal redress difficult is to reverse the necessary line of analysis: we must start from the truth, and attempt as best we can to improve laws so that they can deal with the truth in its complexity, not start from the deeply imperfect horizon of bourgeois law and acknowledge social truth with which it is capable of engaging.

The rapist did not understand that he was faced with a refusal. Perhaps his mistaken belief that he had obtained consent was because he did not enable a space where refusal or consent could be freely given. Perhaps he had, wilfully or otherwise, been trained and trained himself into misunderstanding how to read consent. Such situations should be where our focus lies, both to understand and to overcome such situations. The rapist I am talking about did not understand that consent was not present, and he continued anyway. Like the man discussed at the beginning, this rapist did not know he had consent (how could he know an untruth?), and yet he continued anyway. Having thought about this since publishing my piece, I personally think the focus of law ought not to be on why he did not understood the refusal, or the lack of consent (which would inevitably place blame with the woman for not communicating her refusal), but how precisely he sought to confirm the consent and how exactly he provided a situation where the woman felt able to freely consent or freely refuse (which would rightly place the blame with the man, for not seeking or confirming consent). How this translates into legislation is another question entirely.

Shanice seems to completely ignore the plausibility of the existence of rapists who do not conceive of themselves as such. Of course I am not arguing that these rapists ought to be the focus of our analysis of rape, nor that there is anything less condemnable about what they have done, but I simply cannot see what is to be gained by not engaging with the possibility of their existence. Of course this is an uncomfortable topic; it is sometimes used by those wishing to excuse rapists to shift blame from perpetrators to survivors, but it should be clear that I wish to do neither of those things. I simply think there is a political and theoretical importance to acknowledging that not all rapists set out to rape. Almost certainly we can be confident that most rapists do, but some rapists may simply not be concerned with consent at all, present or not, and some may even genuinely believe that they have consent, so rape without ever realising that they have done so. To ignore that they may exist would seem to me to ignore that their survivors may exist too, and to undermine our ability to make sense of the various situations with which we may be faced.

The other issue regards statistics. several comrades have pointed out to me that I had not factored into my analysis the possibility of successful false allegations – that is, rape allegations which are not true, but which do end in convictions. My instinctive reaction to the hypothetical existence of such cases was that since the UK legal system is so fundamentally flawed, and so institutionally sexist in its approach to rape allegations, since it is so difficult for survivors to get convictions, I severely doubted there could be successful false allegations. However, such cases are at least a hypothetical possibility, and there are indeed some cases where a consensus may emerge that this has occurred. These may make my statistical assertions less exact. We gain nothing from hiding from those things we find difficult. It might be the case that there have been, historically, a number of allegations that were false and that nevertheless ended in conviction of the accused. In the US, in cases where the defendant accepts a ‘plea deal’ – pleads guilty to avoid a longer sentence – this is not as wholly implausible as it may initially seem, and while still doubtless rare, may be less so. We might also consider that in some of those cases the overlap of two sets of oppressive ideologemes may, in particular circumstances, make a false conviction more likely. It is a commonplace to note how eager the US ‘justice’ system is to find minority men guilty of rape, even in the absence of evidence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Park_Jogger_case). On occasion this might overlap with one of the rare false accusations, to lead to a miscarriage of justice.  The case of Brian Banks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Banks_(American_football)), for example, might plausibly seem to illustrate a situation where the racist trope of the Black Rapist overweighed the sexist trope of the Lying Woman, leading to his conviction, later overturned when his accuser admitted that she had lied.

In the context of a society where women are constantly and consistently blamed for their own rapes, and disbelieved as standard, and where a (not insignificant) proportion of the population believe that if a woman flirts, it isn’t rape, as socialists we should clearly, and certainly in the absence of strong counterevidence, default to expressing our belief in women who allege rape. Perhaps the rare successful false allegation changes the statistics somewhat, but I maintain that it is politically and statistically implausible to suggest that such cases alter the logical case for defaulting to believing the woman by any order of magnitude. We can be sure that the vast majority of women who report rape are telling the truth, and that there are many more who choose not to, or feel unable to, report their rapes. A similar statistical critique has been levelled by one of the baying neoconservative zealots of Harry’s Place. The author, however, segues from admittedly legitimate statistical correction of my original argument to entirely unwarranted political assertion about women, rape and ‘blame culture’. I am happy to correct my statistical oversight, while continuing to express my scorn both at the lack of logical rigour and the defensive, reactionary conclusions the denizens of that website are so eager to express.

Admittedly, such a nuance does open up room to criticise the formulation about ‘automatically’ believing women. This can be answered by replacing it with the (slightly less snappy) formulation: ‘absent very strong counter-evidence, one should default to believing’ – because it remains statistically unlikely (however exactly) that a woman who alleges rape is lying, and she can’t have misunderstood. 

Frankly, it dismays me that we are still arguing about how much we should worry that a woman who alleges rape is lying. It is a matter of political principle in the context of victim-blaming and rape culture to stand opposed to those who assume that she is. I’m grateful for the legitimate statistical corrections, but politically it should make very little difference to my argument whether five or six or seven percent are false allegations, and whether or not the statistics around such false allegations are absolutely accurate. The point is, it is impossible, based on the conception of consent as a positive and conscious decision, for a woman who holds herself to have been raped to have somehow misunderstood. The position that many SWP members attempted to argue over the Delta case was “I’m not saying she’s lying, but neither am I saying that she was raped”. This position is logically incoherent, even if some few women lie (absent an undiagnosed epidemic of mendacious and successful accusations, the statistical nuance resulting will be tiny). Either a woman has been raped, or she is lying. There is no way to be on the fence, to not take one of these two positions. Indeed, we should turn this formulation on its head: I’m not saying he’s necessarily lying, but I am saying he’s a rapist.